Tough decisions await Saints as they look to 2011
The party the New Orleans Saints and their fans waited more than four decades to throw has officially ended, bringing forth the sobering reality of an offseason devoid of celebration and full of re-evaluation.
The stunning fashion in which the Saints (11-6) relinquished their title of defending champs - a 41-36 loss at Seattle (8-9) on Saturday - had more to do with an uncharacteristically lousy day on defense than anything else. Yet the Saints still must address several matters that troubled them long before they were upset by a Seahawks club that was the first NFL division winner with a losing record and opened the playoffs as 10-point home underdogs.
Even as Drew Brees and an injury-riddled offense put together a solid overall outing, the Saints' season-long struggles with the running game continued.
Perhaps most unsettling was the performance of Reggie Bush, who entered the postseason expecting to shoulder the load of the Saints' running game but instead went to the locker room after taking a hit to his lower right leg, an area where he fractured a bone early in the regular season.
While X-rays were negative, it was the latest example of the electrifying athlete's struggle to prove he can be reliable or consistent.
''It just flared up on me a little bit and I couldn't run full speed,'' Bush said. ''So obviously, if somebody else can go full speed, it's probably better for the job than me going in there at half speed.''
Bush will be due more than $11 million next season, the sixth and final year on his first pro contract. Whether his production through his first five seasons has justified that amount will be for coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis to decide.
Bush has made it through only his rookie season without missing games with various leg injuries and has yet to make a Pro Bowl. This season, he missed eight games with a fractured right fibula and finished the regular season with 150 yards rushing, 208 yards receiving and one touchdown. He had 49 total yards from scrimmage in New Orleans' playoff loss at Seattle on Saturday and dropped a first-down pass inside the Seahawks 5, forcing the Saints to settle for a field goal.
In recent seasons, Pierre Thomas picked up the slack when Bush went down. This season, Thomas sprained his left ankle in Week 3, missed nine games before a brief comeback and wound up on injured reserve.
After missing some voluntary offseason work in apparent protest last summer, Thomas begrudgingly accepted the Saints' $1.7 million tender offer to him as a restricted free agent for 2010. It remains to be seen if his relationship with the front office has soured to the point where he'd rather be elsewhere next season.
Then there's the matter of the Saints' record-setting quarterback, who also is entering the final season of a six-year deal worth approximately $60 million that he signed in 2006. Brees, who was last season's Super Bowl MVP, is now underpaid by current NFL standards. A lucrative, long-term extension is likely in order before next season starts.
Brees had a franchise-record 448 completions for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns during the regular season. His numbers were marred somewhat by a career-worst 22 interceptions, but Brees was under more pressure this season than last, largely because of the Saints' lagging running game. Even surprising rookie Chris Ivory, who had a few brilliant outings and was New Orleans' leading rusher, couldn't stay on the field consistently and was out for the playoffs.
The Saints finished the regular season with the 28th-ranked running game, dropping the offense to sixth overall - still strong but also the worst ranking since Payton took over in 2006.
By the time Saturday's playoff game was over, the Saints had five running backs on injured reserve and their top two remaining active running backs, Bush and Julius Jones, had been hurt against the Seahawks. Brees was sacked 25 times, an increase of five over the season before.
Still, the Saints managed to have one of the best records in the NFC, winning 11 games for the second season in a row to make it back to the playoffs.
Although Malcolm Jenkins was hurt for the playoffs, he had a superb season taking over for Darren Sharper as starting free safety. Meanwhile, rookie Jimmy Graham emerged as one of Brees' favorite targets. He led Saints tight ends with five TDs, but also was hurt for the playoffs.
While Graham looks like a star of the future, combustible tight end Jeremy Shockey is looking more expendable.
He had 41 catches for 408 yards and three TDs, missed three games with injuries and has one year and about $4.5 million remaining on his contract.
The good news for New Orleans is that, despite bad fortune on the injury front, the Saints strung together some big wins, including one at NFC top seed Atlanta. They even might have advanced to the second round of the playoffs if not for some uncharacteristic blown coverages by the secondary on several Seattle touchdowns.
So while there will be no ''Lombardi Gras'' to coincide with Mardi Gras this year, the Saints appear to have the foundation to be a contender again next season.
''I feel like we've got a special group of guys,'' Brees said. ''We'll see how this offseason plays out ... but I feel like we have the opportunity, the type of men, to make a run at it here for years to come.''